Warren Buffett famously said, 'Volatility is far from synonymous with risk.' When we think about how risky a company is, we always like to look at its use of debt, since debt overload can lead to ruin. We can see that Swire Pacific Limited (HKG:19) does use debt in its business. But should shareholders be worried about its use of debt?
What Risk Does Debt Bring?
Debt and other liabilities become risky for a business when it cannot easily fulfill those obligations, either with free cash flow or by raising capital at an attractive price. In the worst case scenario, a company can go bankrupt if it cannot pay its creditors. However, a more frequent (but still costly) occurrence is where a company must issue shares at bargain-basement prices, permanently diluting shareholders, just to shore up its balance sheet. Of course, plenty of companies use debt to fund growth, without any negative consequences. The first step when considering a company's debt levels is to consider its cash and debt together.
View our latest analysis for Swire Pacific
What Is Swire Pacific's Debt?
The image below, which you can click on for greater detail, shows that at June 2023 Swire Pacific had debt of HK$80.7b, up from HK$58.5b in one year. However, because it has a cash reserve of HK$13.4b, its net debt is less, at about HK$67.3b.
How Healthy Is Swire Pacific's Balance Sheet?
The latest balance sheet data shows that Swire Pacific had liabilities of HK$46.3b due within a year, and liabilities of HK$92.6b falling due after that. Offsetting this, it had HK$13.4b in cash and HK$8.89b in receivables that were due within 12 months. So it has liabilities totalling HK$116.6b more than its cash and near-term receivables, combined.
This deficit casts a shadow over the HK$65.5b company, like a colossus towering over mere mortals. So we definitely think shareholders need to watch this one closely. After all, Swire Pacific would likely require a major re-capitalisation if it had to pay its creditors today.
We measure a company's debt load relative to its earnings power by looking at its net debt divided by its earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) and by calculating how easily its earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) cover its interest expense (interest cover). The advantage of this approach is that we take into account both the absolute quantum of debt (with net debt to EBITDA) and the actual interest expenses associated with that debt (with its interest cover ratio).
Swire Pacific has a debt to EBITDA ratio of 4.6 and its EBIT covered its interest expense 6.9 times. Taken together this implies that, while we wouldn't want to see debt levels rise, we think it can handle its current leverage. Swire Pacific grew its EBIT by 4.5% in the last year. Whilst that hardly knocks our socks off it is a positive when it comes to debt. There's no doubt that we learn most about debt from the balance sheet. But it is future earnings, more than anything, that will determine Swire Pacific's ability to maintain a healthy balance sheet going forward. So if you're focused on the future you can check out this free report showing analyst profit forecasts.
Finally, a business needs free cash flow to pay off debt; accounting profits just don't cut it. So we clearly need to look at whether that EBIT is leading to corresponding free cash flow. During the last three years, Swire Pacific produced sturdy free cash flow equating to 64% of its EBIT, about what we'd expect. This cold hard cash means it can reduce its debt when it wants to.
We'd go so far as to say Swire Pacific's level of total liabilities was disappointing. But on the bright side, its conversion of EBIT to free cash flow is a good sign, and makes us more optimistic. Once we consider all the factors above, together, it seems to us that Swire Pacific's debt is making it a bit risky. Some people like that sort of risk, but we're mindful of the potential pitfalls, so we'd probably prefer it carry less debt. When analysing debt levels, the balance sheet is the obvious place to start. However, not all investment risk resides within the balance sheet - far from it. For example, we've discovered 1 warning sign for Swire Pacific that you should be aware of before investing here.
When all is said and done, sometimes its easier to focus on companies that don't even need debt. Readers can access a list of growth stocks with zero net debt 100% free, right now.
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This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. We provide commentary based on historical data and analyst forecasts only using an unbiased methodology and our articles are not intended to be financial advice. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.